The Supreme Court heard arguments in Sabu Mathew George v. Union of India today. This writ petition was filed in 2008, with the intention of banning ‘advertisement’ offering sex selective abortions and related services, from search engine results. According to the petitioner, these advertisements violate Section 22 of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse Act), 1994 (‘PCPNDT Act’) and consequently, must be taken down.
A comprehensive round up of the issues involved and the Court’s various interim orders can be found here. Today’s hearing focused mainly on three issues – the setting up of the Nodal Agency that is entrusted with providing details of websites to be blocked by search engines, the ambit and scope of the word ‘advertisement’ under the PCPNDT Act and thirdly, the obligation of search engines to find offending content and delete it on their own, without a government directive or judicial order to that effect.
Appearing for the Central Government, the Solicitor General informed the Court that as per its directions, a Nodal Agency has now been constituted. An affidavit filed by the Centre provided details regarding the agency, including contact details, which would allow individuals to bring offending content to its notice. The Court was informed that Agency would be functional within a week.
On the second issue, the petitioner’s counsel argued that removal of content must not be limited only to paid or commercial advertisements, but also other results that induce or otherwise lead couples to opt for sex selective abortions. This was opposed by Google and Yahoo! who contended that organic search results must not be tampered with, as the law only bans ‘advertisements’. Google’s counsel averred that the legislation could never have intended to remove generic search results, which directly facilitate information and research. On the other hand, the Solicitor General argued that that the word ‘advertisement’ should be interpreted keeping the object of the legislation in mind – that is, to prevent sex-selective abortions. On behalf of Microsoft, it was argued that even if the broadest definition of ‘advertisement’ was adopted, what has to be seen is the animus – whether its objective is to solicit sex selective abortions, before content could be removed.
On the third issue, the counsel for the petitioner argued that search engines should automatically remove offending content – advertisements or otherwise, even in the absence of a court order or directions from the Nodal Agency. It was his contention that is was not feasible to keep providing search engines with updated keywords and/or results and the latter should employ technical means to automatically block content. This was also echoed by the Court. On behalf of all search engines, it was pointed out that removal of content without an order from a court or the government was directly against the Supreme Court’s judgment in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. In this case, the Court had read down Section 79 of the Information Technology Act 2000 (‘IT Act’) to hold that intermediaries are only required to take down content pursuant to court orders or government directives. The Court seemed to suggest that Shreya Singhal was decided in the context of a criminal offence (Section 66A of the IT Act) and is distinguishable on that ground.
Additionally, it was also pointed out that even if the respondents were to remove content on their own, the lack of clarity over what constitutes as an ‘advertisement’ prevents them from deciding what content to remove. Overbroad removal of content might open them up to more litigation from authors and researchers with informative works on the subject. The Court did not offer any interpretation of its own, except to say that the ‘letter and spirit’ of the law must be followed. The lack of clarity on what is deemed illegal could, as pointed out by several counsels, lead to censorship of legitimate information.
Despite these concerns, in its order today, the Court has directed every search engine to form an in-house expert committee that will, based “on its own understanding” delete content that is violative of Section 22 of the PCPNDT Act. In case of any conflict, these committees should approach the Nodal Agency for clarification and the latter’s response is meant to guide the search engines’ final decision. The case has been adjourned to April, when the Court will see if the mechanism in place has been effective in resolving the petitioner’s grievances.